The idea of a hike for good health has been around a long time. From William Wordsworth’s poetry to the Boy Scout Hiking merit badge pamphlet, tramping through the countryside has long been considered a tonic for good health.
Millions of Americans who like to hike believe that hiking contributes to good physical and mental health. And yet, until recently, nearly all evidence offered for the benefits of taking a hike was anecdotal and very little hiking-specific scientific research supported that belief.
Austrian researchers conducted studies demonstrating that different types of hiking have different influences on the fats and sugars in the blood. For the study, one group hiked up a ski resort mountain in the Alps and descended by cable car, while the other group rode the cable car up, and hiked down. After two months of hiking, the groups switched hiking programs and repeated the experiment.
As expected, hiking uphill proved to be a great workout and provided measurable health benefits. Unexpectedly, researchers from the Vorarlberg Institute for Vascular Investigation and Treatment discovered that hiking downhill also has unique benefits.
Both uphill and downhill hiking reduced LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Only hiking uphill reduced triglyceride levels. The study’s surprise finding was that hiking downhill was nearly twice as effective as uphill hiking at removing blood sugars and improving glucose tolerance. A second study of uphill/downhill hiking yielded similar results.
A study commissioned by Mind, a leading British mental health charity, suggests hiking contributes to improved mental and emotional health. Researchers from the University of Essex compared the benefits of hiking a trail through the woods and around a lake in a nature park vs. walking in an indoor shopping center on people affected by depression. They found that the hikers realized far greater benefits than the mall-walkers; in fact, taking a hike in the countryside reduces depression whereas walking in a shopping center increases depression.
Results from the 2007 study showed that 71 per cent reported decreased levels of depression after hiking while 22 percent of participants felt their depression increased after walking through an indoor shopping center. Ninety percent reported their self-esteem increased after the nature hike while 44 percent reported decreased self-esteem after walking around the shopping center. Eighty-eight percent of people reported improved mood after hiking while 44.5 per cent of people reported feeling in a worse mood after the shopping center walk.
The American Hiking Society, a Washington D.C. based nonprofit that promotes hiking, produces a widely circulated fact sheet, “Health Benefits of Hiking” that relies on studies, mostly of walking, made by the august American Diabetes, American Heart, and American Lung associations to make the case. Hiking-specific research is likely to be of more value in linking hiking and good health than the general “Exercise is Good for You” studies long used by AHS and other advocacy groups, hiking experts say.
Whether or not the latest research is influencing public opinion, hiking for health appears to be an idea whose time has come. The message is on cereal boxes and granola bar wrappers and a popular subject in Prevention, and many other women’s and health magazines. Glamour.com and Self.com even feature a Hiking Activity Calculator. Enter your weight, duration of your hike, the kind of hiking you’re doing (backpacking, climbing hills, etc.) and learn how many calories you blast on the trail. And from the Devon Hiking Spa in Tucson, Arizona to the New Life Hiking Spa in Killington, Vermont, hiking spas are very popular these days with those who find combining hiking with all the usual health-resort activities makes for a stress-reducing, fitness building holiday.
I’ve long observed hikers routinely making the connections between nature, themselves and good health. We can be pleased that the researchers are making the same connections.